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The Art of the Sneaker

Do you know your SMU from your player exclusive, or the most traded pair of sneakers in history? The top 10 sneaker consumers by country? The answers lie in “Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street,” an ambitious new exhibition that opened at the Design Museum in London this week. It offers proof positive, if any were needed, that we are living in the age of the sneaker.

Driven by a mix of consumer demand, savvy brand marketing, manufacturing innovation and internet-propelled hype, sneakers are both a dominant fashion sector worth around $115 billion a year, according to estimates by the market research group NPD, and an increasingly valuable collectors’ asset class.

Kanye West’s first sample pair of Yeezys — black leather high-tops he wore to the 2008 Grammys — sold for $1.8 million at Sotheby’s in April. They became the most expensive sneakers ever, smashing a previous record of $560,000 set last year for a pair of Nike Air Jordan 1’s worn in a game by Michael Jordan. A growing resale market fueled by the popularity of platforms like StockX and Goat suggests that there are now millions of consumers more interested in trading the products than wearing them.

And, as Louis Vuitton’s men’s wear director Virgil Abloh wryly noted last year, many young people “may value sneakers more than a Matisse.”

But are they really an art form?

“Like many functional everyday fashion items, there is ongoing debate around whether sneakers should be viewed as art and given the same kudos now that they have a similar trading model and are also the subject of museum shows,” said Ligaya Salazar, the curator of “Sneakers Unboxed.” But what is not in doubt, she said, is that they should “be seen as part of design culture and worthy of academic discussion.”

To that end, the show, which features more than 270 pairs of sneakers, charts the history and evolution of the shoe from a rubber-soled sports plimsoll in the early 1900s to an emblem of cool propelled by youth cultures. It analyzes their role as a canvas for political commentary and projection, as well as the increasingly ferocious global design and innovation arms race between competing brands.

Paradoxically, because of the inevitable wear and tear placed on shoes when they are used, and because of manufacturing shifts in the latter part of the 20th century toward emerging economies and particular combinations of bonding glues and rubber, some of the sneakers on display from the early 1900s — take a pair of Converse Big Nine basketball shoes from 1919 — are in better condition than many of those from the 1990s.

“Ultimately, with sneakers, you cannot preserve them in their best condition unless they haven’t been worn at all,” Ms. Salazar said, adding that there was a period of disconnect when brands were producing sneakers purely for sports purposes and under the assumption that they would eventually be thrown away. Now, repair and remaking services, as well as customization, are an increasingly important component of mainstream sneaker culture.

The role of young people in elevating sneakers from sports equipment to tools for cultural expression and transforming the sector into a multibillion dollar industry is underscored throughout the exhibition. It begins with the Black basketball and hip-hop communities of urban New York in the 1970s and ’80s, with Michael Jordan’s 1984 Nike deal and a collaboration by Run DMC with Adidas.

From there it ranges widely, highlighting the adoption of basketball sneakers by the California skate scene; the “casuals,” working-class soccer fans who populated the club terraces of Britain and who used different Adidas styles to reflect their coded rivalries; as well as the cholombianos in Mexico, known for their customized Converse, and the bubbleheads of Cape Town, who favor Nike bubble-soled trainers and use sneakers as walkable signifiers of personal wealth in the local townships.

“We’ve always been put down,” said Riyadh Roberts, a South African hip-hop artist better known as YoungstaCPT, in a video interview in the show that underscores how sneakers, like art, can convey ideas about social meaning including national identity, class and race. “We’ve always been sidelined. We’ve always been forgotten. And yet we come out of the kak looking better than those that have money, than those who are the elite.” (“Kak” is Afrikaans for “feces.”)

The role of fashion in elevating the highbrow cultural status of sneakers by bestowing design legitimacy is another focus of the show, with styles including the 1999 Zoom Haven by Junya Watanabe Commes des Garçons, the 2002 introduction of the Y-3 Adidas line by Yohji Yamamoto, the Balenciaga $1000 Triple S Clodhopper and the Martine Rose hot pink Nike Air Monarch IV, made by putting a size 18 mold atop a size nine sole.

Moving away from the pop cultural relevance of the trainer, the latter half of the exhibition focuses on sustainability and the environmental issues currently confronting the fashion and sportswear industries.

It showcases innovations like Stan Smith mushroom leather sneakers from Adidas and Mylo, plus the company’s Futurecraft Strung 3D-knitting robot, designed to reduce waste and shown in action. Also on view: the world’s first biologically active shoes developed by MIT Design Lab and Biorealize for Puma. Known as the Breathing Shoe, the sneaker material is home to microorganisms that can learn a user’s specific heat emissions and opens up ventilation based on those patterns.

After all, despite the rarity of many of these objects and a culture of scarcity, the sneaker industry is still exploding, particularly the resale market, where styles can sell out in seconds, and has a heavy environmental footprint. According to Derek Morrison, StockX’s director in Europe (the platform is also a sponsor of the exhibition), environmental issues may help shape the industry in the future.

“It’s never been easier to access sneakers, so the focus for many is less on the hunt and more on the purpose and meaning behind a purchase,” he said. “They’re increasingly buying into craftsmanship, innovation, the creators and the substance behind designs. Sneakers aren’t the trend, they are the medium.”

As with fine art, there are few rules to collecting sneakers but many opinions and approaches. Some collectors wear their collection, while others keep them in refrigerators or pristinely wrapped inside their original boxes. Either way, Ms. Salazar said, “Collectors have proved invaluable as both gatekeepers and historians of these shoes and the cultures that surround them.”

And even though Mr. Morrison noted that StockX “was born from a recognition that buying and selling sneakers didn’t need to be like the art industry, with opaque pricing that empowers sellers at the expense of the buyers,” he acknowledged that to see sneakers “on this stage, as an exhibit focus at one of the world’s most revered design institutions, is a huge validation of sneaker culture and the power it has amassed.”

“Sneakers Unboxed” runs May 18 to Oct. 24 at the Design Museum in London.


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